BA Strike: The £30m food fight

BA grounds all Heathrow flights in catering row
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The Independent Online

The strike resulted in the airline closing check-in desks and cancelling flights after staff walked out in solidarity with hundreds of catering workers who were sacked on Wednesday by Gate Gourmet, the American-owned catering business that supplies BA with its in-flight meals. The chaos wiped £30m off the airline's stock market value. Last night BA said it would cancel all of its flights out of Heathrow until 6pm today. The decision will affect more than 70,000 passengers.

More than 1,000 BA ground staff stopped work yesterday afternoon, resulting in long-haul and short-haul flights to major destinations including Sydney, New York, Paris, Munich, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Manchester being grounded and inbound flights being diverted. BA said 17,000 passengers were affected by the action. Long queues quickly formed as passengers on cancelled flights were offered refunds or the opportunity to re-book on other airlines. A BA spokeswoman said: "We have suspended check-ins and some flights have to be cancelled to avoid a backlog." The company said 92 short-haul and 44 long-haul flights had been cancelled. Today all long-haul inbound flights are being diverted to other airports in the south-east of England. The delays and cancellations left thousands of travellers angry and worried about arrangements.

Jane Bassett, was due to fly to Australia with her four-year-old daughter, Lauren. "It's beyond belief. It was going to be bad enough spending 23 hours on a plane with nothing to eat, but now these delays are running on and on. We've no idea whether we are going to get to Australia at all."

Joanne Buckingham and her daughter Lucy, feared their flight to Vancouver would be cancelled. "We're both really tired and have been standing here for hours and haven't really heard much from British Airways staff," she said. "I was going to visit my three sisters. I'm worried where we will stay tonight if the flight is cancelled."

The walkout by baggage handlers is an escalation of Wednesday's unofficial strike action by catering workers which has left travellers without in-flight food. Before the baggage handlers went on unofficial strike yesterday, hundreds of flights were able to take off but with only water, tea and coffee available for refreshment. British Airways was advising customers to eat before boarding, handing out bags of food from emergency feeding stations in departure lounges and offering customers vouchers for airport restaurants.

Unions said as many as 800 people had been dismissed from Gate Gourmet, although the company admitted to only 640.

The company said all staff who took part in Wednesday's strike had been dismissed because the action had been taken without a strike ballot and constituted a breach of contract. Strikers on Gate Gourmet's Wednesday afternoon shift were sacked en masse by megaphone as management struggled to control an increasingly militant meeting. Workers who were on holiday on Wednesday or on sick leave were also sent notices that they had lost their jobs, although the company later admitted these had been sent in error.

Picket lines were in operation outside the Gate Gourmet factories in Heathrow. The company summoned police to help contain any potential trouble. There are fears that the dispute could affect other airlines.

Rod Eddington, the chief executive of BA, said: "We are taking an active role in trying to encourage both sides in this dispute to reach a speedy resolution. I am encouraging both sides to continue talking in a bid to settle their differences as soon as possible."

Tony Woodley, the general secretary of the Transport & General Workers' Union, called on BA to put pressure on the catering firm to return to the negotiating table. He accused Gate Gourmet of indulging in "classic American union-busting". He said the company had unilaterally decided to reduce the pay and conditions of its staff.

"I appeal again for Gate Gourmet to step back from the brink before more suffering is caused to the travelling public," Mr Woodley said.

The catering row erupted on Wednesday afternoon when 500 workers left the assembly lines at Gate Gourmet in protest over the hiring of seasonal staff. Workers have been at loggerheads with management for months over changes to what the company calls "outdated" working practices. Gate Gourmet is in dire financial straits and urgently needs an agreement with its workers. The company has not made a profit since 2000 and its losses are running at £25m a year. It says it has to improve productivity or go bust, leaving its 2,800 workers in the UK without jobs. The company insisted that workers who had been sacked would remain sacked, despite the calls from the T &G. Many who took part in the strike tried to report for duty today, but were turned away by management.

"Anyone who did not take part in the unofficial action is welcome back at work," a spokesman said, adding that the company wanted to resume talks with the union. A meeting is scheduled for today.

Passengers affected by the cancellations should call the BA helpline on 0800 727 800 to rebook. Passengers will be given the option of flying out of Gatwick if seats are available on flights to the same destination. All flights are cancelled until 6pm tonight, but passengers should check the BA website before heading to the airport for flights scheduled to fly later than 6pm:

'We feel abandoned'

Jennifer Blake, 68, retired, is part of a group of 22 women from Sydney, Australia, who have been touring Ireland, Scotland and England for 27 days. They left the tour four days ago and have been sightseeing in London. Mrs Blake said: "We saw a lot of people when we got to the airport and a lady in a yellow vest told us there was a problem. Other than that we know absolutely nothing. We've been told that if we do fly there will be no food and the flight is around 12 hours long. I'd rather just get on a plane and go but we can't." The group were hoping to fly to Singapore and then back to Sydney. Mrs Blake said: "We've used all our money. We've only got about £10 left." Justine White, 77, also with the group, said: "We can't stay here all night. We feel abandoned.''Mrs Blake said: "We walked around Hyde Park for hours today thinking we could sleep on the plane.''

How it unfolded

* 9am: Passengers board flights from Heathrow knowing they will not be served food on board. They are given vouchers to buy their own food before boarding. Many of the 800 sacked Gate Gourmet employees mount picket lines.

* 2pm: The dispute escalates when BA begins to receive reports that staff in the cargo area of Heathrow's Terminal 1 have stopped work.

* 2.30pm: The action quickly spreads to Terminals 3 and 4 and involves baggage handlers and other workers (BA does not operate out of Terminal 2).

* 3.15pm: BA suspends all aircraft movements, leaving thousands of holidaymakers and other travellers stranded at Heathrow.

* 6pm: The airline starts putting up passengers in hotels after deciding it cannot run any flights to Europe, the UK and the US, Australia, South Africa and Asia. Tony Woodley, the general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, urges BA to put pressure on Gate Gourmet to reinstate the sacked workers, accusing the US-owned catering firm of behaving in a " disgraceful" fashion.

* By midnight: Dozens of BA's short-haul flights and 44 long-haul flights have been cancelled.

Geneviève Roberts